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Palmyra - lost forever?

The terror organization "IS" has been destroying one cultural monument after another in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Experts wonder whether the temples and triumphal arches could be rebuilt in the future.

Majestic columns, expansive roads, enormous ruins - the ancient Syrian oasis city of Palmyra is one of the world's most famous examples of Roman architecture. For decades, Palmyra attracted thousands of tourists; untold numbers of researchers have studied it. Yet today, no one knows exactly what remains of the ancient commercial metropolis. Since May, the desert settlement has been in the hands of the terrorist organization "IS," who have been systematically destroying the city's temples, triumphal arches and burial towers.

A loss that worries historians and achaeologists around the world. "Palmyra is a unique place, because it symbolizes openness to the world and cultural diversity, and was part of a trading route that connected China, Persia and the Mediterranean," says Markus Hilgert, director of the Berlin's Museum of the Ancient Near East. "Palmyra is also meaningful for us because it is so well preserved. Therefore, the loss of its beautiful and prominent architectural monuments is extremely painful."

Syrien Palmyra Baaltempel

Palmyra's Bel Temple

Well researched ruins

At the beginning of this week, IS terrorists blew-up a nearly 2,000-year-old Arch of Triumph (above). Over the past several months they have also destroyed the important Bel and Baalshamin temples as well as several burial towers. "I am very pessimistic about the future of Palmyra," said Abdulkarim Mamun, director of Museums and Antiquities in Damascus, in a recent interview.

Markus Hilgert also fears that IS could potentially destroy the entire archeological site. Nevertheless, he does not want to give up on Palmyra. Its ruins are comparatively well researched. And since there are numerous photographs and very exact documentation of the site, Hilgert believes that a rebuilding, or reconstruction of at least some of the structures may be possible. "One day we will be able to see more clearly just how bad the destruction is, and what we can do with the fragments that remain on site," says Hilgert.

Syrien Grabtürme Palmyra IS Sprengung Tombs

The burial towers of Palmyra

Different possibilities for reconstruction

There are several possible approaches to reconstruction. Original fragments secured on site could be used: a historical reconstruction like that currently being undertaken on the Berlin Palace - the former residence of the German Emperor, torn down following the Second World War - could be conceivable. "We will certainly be in a position to pursue such measures in Palmyra," says Hilgert. "However, that can only happen if the political situation calms and we can get an overview as to what the actual scale of the destruction is."

Currently, scientists are discussing whether 3-D models can be created from extant 2-D photographs. The use of 3-D printers is also being considered. "We are in a phase in which the basic technology already exists," says Hilgert. "But it has to be adapted to the needs of science and reconstructive archeology." The Near East antiquities expert is confident that such technology will soon be used not only in Europe and the USA, but also in the countries of the Middle East where so many cultural artifacts are being destroyed today.

Measures for the preservation of cultural heritage

Despite the fact that the scale of destruction remains unknown, Hilgert makes the case for thinking about which preventative or reconstructive measures could be taken. "We aren't helpless, we have the means, we can research and create infrastructures. More than anything we have a moral obligation to do so - because we were only able to gain our knowledge of the site by working with our Syrian colleagues. That is why it is so important that we share that know-how with them, so that these treasures are not lost forever."

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